The China travelogue boasts an illustrious history. From Marco Polo to Peter Hessler, Western writers have long used the genre as a point of entry for broader assessments of the nation and its relationship to the outside world. Still and moving images, from early newsreels to the contemporary photo-book, have played a similar role. In China at Its Limits, Matthias Messmer and Hsin-Mei Chuang bring these two forms together. Combining “solid academic research” (414) with five years of travel around and across China’s borders, they have written a book that they emphasize is neither “purely academic . . . nor a comprehensive travel documentary” (12). Instead it weaves together historical narrative, images, and reportage in an attempt to capture for the general reader what China’s global reemergence looks like from the country’s margins.

Messmer and Chuang focus on borderlands for several reasons. China’s borders have been shaped by both...

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